Ah, those civilized Western Europeans — they know how to relish the good things in life we so frequently overlook. Consider, for example, the radish, scourge of the grammar-school lunch box, first-discarded garnish on a garden salad . . .
Last year, at a family dinner in a chateau outside Paris, exclamations of pleasure greeted the first course: an antique Sèvres platter of torpedo-shaped, crimson-skinned radishes. Family members heaped small piles of coarse gray salt on their plates, then claimed radishes by the handful — murmuring over the humble roots as if they were foie gras or some beautiful seasonal shellfish. Several weeks later, in Ireland, I lunched with a woman who, with the same enthusiasm, served fresh round radishes, which she proceeded to slice, eating each red-rimmed, snow-white piece with a touch of cold sweet butter and a pinch of sea salt. I tried it myself — delicious.
As a convert to the pleasures of radish, I naturally gravitated to Le Pain Quotidien’s fromage blanc et radis sandwich. (Fromage blanc, essentially plain ricotta, is another Continental taste yet to cross the great water: In France, people eat it from little cartons like yogurt; some spoon it over fruit, others sweeten it with sugar. Come to think of it, the grittiness of granulated sugar — on fromage blanc or fresh berries — is yet another civilized pleasure we may not fully appreciate.) The sandwich, a cloud of fluffy white cheese artfully paved with thin, crisp radish slices and scallions on the house-made brown bread, comes to life with a sprinkling of — what else? — sea salt.
Le Pain Quotidien is a chain bakery and café that originated in Belgium and spread to France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and, most recently, Beverly Hills. Owner-creator Alain Coumont’s rigorous, winning aesthetic consists of a refined, even streamlined rusticity; he seems intent on promulgating precisely the small, daily pleasures that make Continental life so beguiling. Coffee is served in cunning footed bowls. Each establishment has a bakery, featuring huge discs of artisanal breads, crusty baguettes and straightforward pastries. Antique pine shelving holds Le Pain Quotidien products — olive oil, olive paste, sun-dried tomatoes, sea salt, capers and so on, an almost complete Mediterranean palette. Dining rooms center around a long communal pine table (the one in Beverly Hills seats 30), with a scattering of two-tops for the less sociable.
The tartines, or sandwiches, come open-faced and garnished with greens, chopped parsley, tiny niçoise olives and tomato, on cute square plates. They are as pretty as little paintings — which is remarkable, considering how fully systematized they are. Those who haven’t been converted to bland cheese and radishes will find more conventional ingredients in tasty combinations: a rare roast beef with a good caper mayonnaise; a silken smoked salmon with lots of dill. The duck pâté, while of good quality and served with plenty of crunchy cornichons, is sliced too thickly and is too cold, and tastes ever so slightly of refrigeration — all of which indicates that pâté has not yet become one of our quotidian pleasures.
The young, pretty, French-speaking waitress feels compelled to warn us that the beef carpaccio sandwich is made with raw beef — raw, chopped beef, as it happens, which adds more of a cool, fleshy texture than anything else, as its mildness is overwhelmed by a blanket of pesto, thin curls of parmigiano, and plump sun-dried tomatoes. It’s a delicious sandwich, full of those northern Italian tropes, but not what we expected. Another house specialty, the assiette Toscane, or Tuscan platter, is a make-your-own sandwich board with more of those tropes: ricotta cheese, tapenade, sun-dried tomatoes and so forth.
Salads — a variation on the caprese, a shrimp salad, a smoked-salmon salad — are reconfigurations of aforementioned ingredients, only piled on greens, with bread on the side. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of Le Pain Quotidien’s system — thank goodness it’s such a good one.
The baked goods can be roughly separated into breakfast items and dessert items. A selection of not-too-sweet bready products are especially good with coffee: My favorite is the flûte, a kind of raisin-and-hazelnut breadstick that’s chewy and rich and addictive, although it may run a little heavy on the hazelnuts. The “beggar’s square,” a pleasantly bland coffeecake with a thick surface of nuts and dried fruit, also provides an alarming amount of whole nuts. A coarse-crumbed pound cake with almonds and raisins strikes a happier balance; not as sweet as it sounds, nor as nutty as the beggar’s square, it’s an ideal way to have cake for breakfast (a waiter correctly warned me against trying it for dessert).
For dessert, you need something to go with that cunning bowl of coffee. Both the apple and the apricot tarts are at once rustic (great hunks of tart fruit) and refined (well-made, pretty crusts). But chocolate desserts steal the show: The chocolate-mousse cake, your basic bittersweet bombe, is rich and smooth and very deeply chocolate. A chestnut tart has a bittersweet chocolate core, chestnut mousse and a hard white chocolate shell monogrammed with an “M” (for marron, French for chestnut) — each one looks like a bleached-blond Matterhorn.
A second Southland Le Pain Quotidien is scheduled to open in West L.A. early next year.
9630 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 859-1100. Open daily 7:30 a.m.–7 p.m. Lunch items $6.50–$18, pastries $3–$6. AE, MC, V.